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Acta Scientiarum
ISSN printed: 1679-9283
ISSN on-line: 1807-863X
Doi: 10.4025/actascibiolsci.v34i3.8956
Histology of the digestive tract of Satanoperca pappaterra
(Osteichthyes, Cichlidae)
Marlene Rodrigues da Silva1*, Maria Raquel Marçal Natali2 and Norma Segatti Hahn1
Programa de Pós-graduação de Ambientes Aquáticos Continentais, Departamento de Biologia, Núcleo de Pesquisas em Limnologia, Ictiologia e
Aquicultura, Universidade Estadual de Maringá, Av. Colombo, 5790, 87020-900, Maringá, Paraná, Brazil. 2Departamento de Ciências Morfofisiológicas,
Centro de Ciências Biológicas, Universidade Estadual de Maringá, Maringá, Paraná, Brazil. *Author for correspondence. E-mail: [email protected]
ABSTRACT. This study aimed to locate, describe and characterize the esophagus, stomach and intestine of
Satanoperca pappaterra using histological techniques. The species presents detritivore-invertivore feeding habit and is
widely distributed in Neotropical continental waters. The esophagus is short, the stomach is small with saccular
form and the intestine is long. The histological sections were stained using hematoxylin/eosin and Periodic Acid
Schiff. Throughout the digestive tract, the gastric wall is composed by four different tunicae: mucosa, submucosa,
muscularis externa and serosa, besides distinct intrinsic innervation represented by the submucosal and myenteric
ganglionated plexuses. Depending on the organ, several characteristics were peculiar such as the external muscle
layer of the esophagus that permeates the submucosa; a single sphincter between the stomach and intestine; stomach
without differentiated regions; intestine histologically and physiologically divided into two regions (proximal and
distal), considering the villi height and spacing besides the density of the goblet cells.
Keywords: freshwater fish, Cichlidae, histological methods, digestive tract.
Histologia do trato digestivo de Satanoperca pappaterra (Osteichthyes, Cichlidae)
RESUMO. Este estudo teve por objetivo localizar, delimitar e caracterizar histologicamente o esôfago, estômago
e intestino de Satanoperca pappaterra. A espécie possui hábito alimentar detritívoro-invertívoro e é amplamente
distribuída em águas continentais neotropicais. Macroscopicamente, o esôfago é curto, o estômago é pequeno e
com formato sacular e o intestino é longo. Os cortes histológicos foram corados com hematoxilina/eosina e ácido
periódico de Schiff. Ao longo de todo o tubo digestório, nota-se quatro túnicas distintas compondo a parede:
mucosa, submucosa, muscular externa e serosa e distinta inervação intrínseca representada pelos plexos
ganglionados submucoso e miontérico. Dependendo do órgão ficaram evidentes características peculiares, tais
como, a muscular externa do esôfago que permeia a submucosa; um único esfíncter entre o estômago e o
intestino; estômago sem regiões diferenciadas; intestino dividido histológica e fisiologicamente em duas porções
(proximal e distal), considerando a altura e espaçamento das vilosidades e a densidade das células caliciformes.
Palavras chaves: peixe de água doce, Cichlidae, método histológico, tubo digestório.
The Cichlidae presents the highest species richness,
with about 1,300 described species, one of the greatest
among vertebrates (KULLANDER, 2003). In South
America, this family is represented by approximately 50
genera and an estimative of 450 species (6 - 10% of
freshwater fish worldwide) (KULLANDER, 1988).
This is an evolutionarily interesting group because
presents peculiar morphological traits that reflect
specializations in the diet (RÜBER; ADAMS, 2001;
GOULART, 2011).
Despite the high diversity and the great ecological
importance of this group, little is known about
Neotropical cichlids. The most studied representatives
of feeding or trophic morphological aspects of this
Acta Scientiarum. Biological Sciences
family in Neotropical water are the Cichla
HELLIG et al., 2010; SANTOS et al., 2011) and
Oreochromis species (CACECI et al., 1997;
MORRISON; WRIGHT, 1999; NJIRU et al., 2004),
due to the importance for aquiculture and species of
the subfamily Geophaginae (LÓPEZ-FERNÁNDEZ
et al., 2005).
Satanoperca pappaterra (Heckel, 1840), also
identified as Geophagus pappaterra until the review by
Kullander (1986) apud Kullander and Ferreira
(1988), is a cichlid widely distributed in continental
water from Brazil, Bolívia and Paraguai
(KULLANDER, 2003), however its autecology is
scarcely known. Hahn and Cunha (2005) described
the digestive tract and the diet of this species and
Maringá, v. 34, n. 3, p. 319-326, July-Sept., 2012
ascribed the detritivore-invertivore feeding habit to
the constant presence of detritus and benthic
organisms in the stomach content. The authors
observed that the stomach is similar to a small sac
and is positioned as a lateral “diverticulum” at the
beginning of the long intestine. This pattern does
not resemble the morphology described to most
teleosts, although the shape above mentioned is
reported in the literature for other cichlids, as
Oreochromis niloticus (MORRISON; WRIGHT, 1999),
and Retroculus lapidifer (MOREIRA; ZUANON, 2002).
Besides the function of digestion and absorption,
the stomach and intestine may play other functions,
e.g., assist breathing as in Plecostomus sp., Ancistrus
sp., Hoplosternum sp. and Loricariichthys sp. (GIAMAS
et al., 2000; SILVA et al., 1997; ZAVALA-CAMIN,
1996) and in the osmoregulation as in Anguilla sp.
sufficient indication of the plasticity of these organs
to change their structure and physiology. In these
cases, when the organ shape creates uncertainties
about the real function, histological studies are an
excellent tool. According to Brett and Groves
(1979), the routine of histological sections assists on
the quantification, through quantitative morphometrical
techniques, and also allow the researcher, through a
more detailed analysis, to obtain data for physiological
and/or biochemical tests, which favor the correlation
between structure and function.
Therefore, regarding the shape, position and size
of the stomach from S. pappaterra and the
disproportion with the intestine length, the present
study aimed to locate, describe and characterize the
regions of the digestive tract from this species, using
histological techniques. Additionally, we intend to
contribute to broaden the knowledge about the
species and consequently about Neotropical cichlids.
Material and methods
Individuals of S. pappaterra were gathered in
September 2007, using gill nets, at two
environments from the upper Paraná river
floodplain, Porto Rico County, Paraná State, Brazil
(Garças Lake, 22º43’27.18”S; 53º13’4.56”W), located
in the right bank of the Paraná river and (Leopoldo
Backwater, 22º45’24”S; 53º16’79.8”W), situated in
Mutum Island, both directly connected to the river.
Voucher specimens were deposited in the
Ichthyological Collection from the Núcleo de
Pesquisas em Limnologia, Ictiologia e Aquicultura
(Nupélia - State University of Maringá, Paraná
State, Brazil), under the number 1841.
Acta Scientiarum. Biological Sciences
Silva et al.
After the sampling, five adult specimens were
selected, with mean length of 16.17 and standard
deviation of ± 1.46 cm. Afterwards, we removed the
digestive tract of the individuals, modeled freehand
and delimitated the regions between the esophagus
and intestine to be processed histologically (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Digestive tract of S. pappaterra: esophagus (1), stomach
(2, 3), transition region (4) and intestine (5, 6 and 7). Drawing:
Gabriel Deprá
For the histological analysis, the samples were
fixed using Bouin’s solution for 48 hours,
dehydrated at increasing alcohol concentrations,
cleared in xylene, paraffin-embedded and sectioned
transversely and sagittally with a thickness of 7 μm.
After that, the sections were stained with
hematoxylin-eosin (HE) to characterize the general
morphology of the organs, and then we performed
the histochemical reaction, which evidences the
mucus-producing cells, through the Periodic Acid
Schiff (PAS) (BEÇAK; PAULETE, 1976).
The analyses were carried out with optical
microscopy and the photo documentation with
optical microscope BX 41, coupled to an image
capture system.
The complete digestive tract of S. pappaterra is
long, with mean length of 27.78 and standard
deviation of ± 2.48 cm, with approximately twice the
mean standard length of the animal.
The histological analyses evidenced, along the
entire digestive tract, the presence of four distinct
tunicae composing the wall: mucosa, submucosa,
muscularis externa and serosa, besides distinct
intrinsic innervation represented by the submucosal
and myenteric ganglionated plexuses, in accordance
to the organ considered.
Macroscopically, we observed anatomical
structures similar to a sphincter delimiting the
stomach from the intestine (transition region),
which was corroborated through microscopic
analysis. At this region (base of the stomach) there is
confluence of striated muscle fibers and collagen
Maringá, v. 34, n. 3, p. 319-326, July-Sept., 2012
Histology of the digestive tract of a cichlid fish
fibers, which suggest a control mechanism. This is a
true pyloric sphincter since is composed by
fibromuscular folds of the wall, facing the intestinal
lumen, with components of smooth and striated
muscle. (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Transition region of the digestive tract from
S. pappaterra, evidencing the pyloric sphincter fold (curly bracket)
with confluence (C) of the striated muscle fibers (*) and collagen
fibers (+) HE.
The esophagus is short, about 0.5 cm long, wide,
straight and is connected to the swim bladder through
the pneumatic duct. Microscopically, this organ is
composed by several folds, lined with mucus-secreting
epithelium and lamina propria that presents esophageal
glands (Figure 3A). We did not observe the muscularis
mucosae. The submucosa is compounded by
moderately dense connective tissue, presenting cells
with acidophilic granules. This layer is permeated by
the muscularis externa, which is composed by two
well-developed layers of striated muscle (Figure 3B),
lined with a poorly-defined serosa.
The stomach is sac-like and very small, and is
positioned laterally to the intestine, similar to an
appendix. The cell composition is uniform throughout
the wall extension, and for this reason without division
into distinct regions. The mucosa exhibits tall and
uniform folds, with evident borders, is completely
glandular and presents simple cylindrical mucussecreting epithelium, revealed by the PAS positive
reaction (Figure 4A). At the lamina propria, we observe
tubular gastric glands formed by a single cell type
(oxintopeptic) with central nucleus. These glands are
permeated by collagen and smooth muscle fibers that
are organized to form the muscularis mucosae. The
submucosa presents several collagen fibers, developed
blood vessels, beyond the presence of numerous cells
with acidophilic granules that have infiltrated into the
epithelium (Figure 4B). The muscularis externa tunica
is compounded by smooth muscle fibers arranged in
two layers, the inner is thick, formed by fibers in the
transverse direction (inner circular) and the outer is
reduced, composed by fibers in the longitudinal
direction (outer longitudinal).
A very thin serous layer forms the outer lining of
the entire stomach. This is constituted by a thin
layer of connective tissue lined with simple
squamous epithelium (mesothelium) (Figure 5).
Macroscopically, the intestine is tubular, long, with
mean standard length of 26.78 ± 2.48 cm, presenting
four folds that form loops. The inner lining of the
intestine presents simple cylindrical epithelium
compounded by enterocytes and typical goblet cells,
which lins the intestinal villi in all the extent, and we
did not verify crypts. The enterocytes show columnar
form with a cylindrical nucleus arranged in the basal
region forming borders facing the lumen. The goblet
cells (mucus-producing), evidenced by PAS
histochemical method, are arranged along the entire
length of the intestinal tract; besides that their
frequency are sharply higher at the final portion of the
Figure 3. Esophagus of S. pappaterra, evidencing A: esophageal fold (PE), mucus-secreting epithelium (vertical arrow); and esophageal glands
(horizontal arrow) PAS; B: mucosa (M), submucosa (S) and striated muscle fibers (*) compounding the tunic muscularis externa (ME) HE.
Acta Scientiarum. Biological Sciences
Maringá, v. 34, n. 3, p. 319-326, July-Sept., 2012
Silva et al.
foliaceous aspect (Figure 6A), whereas at the distal
region, the villi have reduced height, less
numerous and with digitiform aspect (Figure 6B).
The lamina propria is composed by loose
connective tissue and small caliber blood vessels.
Smooth muscle fibers compound a thin layer, the
muscularis mucosae, which are projected toward
the lamina propria and also permeate the
submucosa tunica. The latter is relatively
developed, compounded predominantly by
collagen fibers, blood and lymphatic vessels.
Figure 4. Stomach of S. pappaterra - A: simple cylindrical mucussecreting epithelium – (arrow) and glandular region (RG) - PAS;
B: evidencing the lamina propria with tubular gastric glands
(GGT); muscularis mucosae (MM) and submucosa with
acidophilic cells – arrow (HE).
Figure 6. Intestine of S. pappaterra, evidencing: A – proximal
intestine: villi tall and close to each other (*), goblet cells (arrow)
and thick muscularis externa (ME). B – distal intestine: low and
sparse villi (*), goblet cells (arrow) and reduced muscularis
externa (ME) PAS.
Figure 5. Stomach of S. pappaterra, evidencing the submucosa
(S); the smooth muscle layers of the muscularis externa tunica
(ME - bar); myenteric ganglionated plexus (full arrow) and
serous tunica (empty arrow) (HE).
Histologically this organ was divided into
proximal and distal regions by the presence of
distinct characteristics. At the proximal portion, the
villi are tall, numerous, next to each other and with
Acta Scientiarum. Biological Sciences
The muscularis externa tunica is formed by two
layers of smooth muscle fibers, oriented internally in
the transverse direction and externally in
longitudinal direction, and at the proximal portion,
the muscle layer is thicker than the distal. The
fourth and the outer tunica of the intestine wall, the
serous tunica, is extremely reduced, with
mesothelial lining (Figure 7).
Maringá, v. 34, n. 3, p. 319-326, July-Sept., 2012
Histology of the digestive tract of a cichlid fish
Figure 7. Proximal intestine of S. pappaterra, evidencing the
submucosa tunica (S), the muscularis externa (bar), the myenteric
plexuses (full arrow) and serous tunica (empty arrow) (HE).
The morphological and anatomical structure
from the digestive tract of S. pappaterra, suggests an
adaptation to the detritivore-invertivore feeding
habit (HAHN; CUNHA 2005; CASSEMIRO et al.,
2008). The reduced size of the stomach is probably
justified by the fact that this organ serves to brief
passage of food, where the chemical digestion
occurs. Otherwise, the intestine is long due to the
low-energy food that requires slower intestinal
transit for digestion, absorption and utilization.
The esophagus morphology is similar to the
description by Gargiulo et al. (1996) and Morrison
and Wright (1999), for tilapias, which observed
stratified epithelium with mucus-producing cells
and striated muscle from the beginning to the end of
the organ wall. The folds of the esophagus described
for other teleosts (TAKASHIMA; HIBIYA, 1995;
RANDAL; KUZ’MINA, 2000; SANTOS et al.,
2007) were also observed in S. pappaterra.
The position that the sphincter occupies in the
digestive tract and the histological characteristics
(mainly the striated muscle at the muscularis externa
tunic) suggest that the sphincter controls the entry
of recently swallowed food until the stomach.
Probably this prevents that the food passes directly
into the intestine without chemical digestion, and
then releases the digested content from the stomach
to the intestine. Morrison and Wright (1999) also
mention a type of valve between the pyloric region
of the stomach and the intestine of tilapia, which
despite histologically similar to that of S. pappaterra,
is anatomically in different region.
The histological analyses confirm that this organ
is restricted only to the saccular structure, described
by Hahn and Cunha (2005). The most remarkable
Acta Scientiarum. Biological Sciences
difference in the stomach from this species refers to
the histological uniformity of the wall, not
consistent with previous studies with other cichlids
CACECI, 1990) and several other teleosts
(ALBRECHT et al., 2001; BICCA et al., 2006;
SILVA et al., 2005), which observed three
histologically distinct regions: cardiac, intermediary
or middle and pyloric. We may deduce that the
absence of these differences as well as the presence
of well developed folds of the gastric mucosa suggest
adaptation to increase the internal surface and
perform exclusively function of chemical digestion.
For Osman and Caceci (1990), the mucosal folds
may allow delay in the food passage through the
stomach into smaller portions, permitting an
efficient mixing of the food bolus with digestive
The presence of mucus-secreting mucosa should
have the task of facilitating the food passage through
the organ, adjust the pH, as well as protecting from
the acid content, as suggested by Osman and Caceci
(1990) and Morrison and Wright (1999), for Tilapia
nilotica and Oreochromis niloticus, respectively; and
moreover, under normal conditions the secreted
mucus functions as a barrier against microorganisms
in larvae and juvenile fish (RINGØ et al., 2007).
Tubular gastric glands with oxintopeptic cells,
which were observed throughout the entire lamina
propria, produce simultaneously pepsinogen and
hydrochloric acid, corroborating the descriptions by
Osman and Caceci (1990), Rotta (2003),
Chatchavalvanich et al. (2006) and Santos et al.
(2007) in studies with different fish species.
The presence of several cells with acidophilic
granules suggests that are mast cells, which mediate
immune responses. According to Osman and Caceci
(1990) the presence of immune cells in the mucosa
and submucosa of tilapia reflects a competent
defense system of fish against invading pathogens.
Agius and Roberts (2003), verified an increase in the
number of other immune cells, such as
macrophages, in fish inhabiting polluted water. For
Bernstein et al. (1998), the presence of these cells in
the digestive tract, comparable to that found in
mammals, is related to the first line of defense of
fish, as described by, Peretti and Andrian (2008) for
different fish groups, including a cichlid species.
The intestinal length of S. pappaterra is directly
related to the species feeding habit, corresponding to
studies carried out by several authors (FUGI et al.,
2001; RODRIGUES; MENIN, 2008) that related
the relative length of intestine with the feeding
habit, which is shorter in carnivores, and longer in
herbivore and detritivore. In accordance with
Maringá, v. 34, n. 3, p. 319-326, July-Sept., 2012
Hidalgo and Alliot (1987), the intestine length
influences extremely the quantitative aspects of
digestion and absorption of food. The welldeveloped structure of intestinal mucosa,
characterized in the present study, due to the
presence of villi long and close to each other in the
anterior region of the intestine, was also described
by Manjakasy et al. (2009) as directly involved in
absorption processes. Indeed, the intestinal length
together with the villi presence increase the number
of enterocytes, cells that have the function of final
digestion, absorption of nutrients, proteins and
lipids (proximal portion) as well as water,
electrolytes and protein macromolecules (distal
portion) (TAKASHIMA; HIBIYA, 1995). For Seixas
Filho et al. (2001), the arrangement of mucosal folds
and the speed of food transport within the intestine,
slow the food advance in aboral direction, which
allow longer digestive period and consequently
better utilization of the nutrients. The gradual
increase in the number of goblet cells from proximal
to distal intestine, found in S. pappaterra is supported
by the descriptions from Rotta (2003) for different
teleost species, including cichlids, from Çinar and
Şenol (2006) for Pseudophoxinus antalyae, from Peretti
and Andrian (2008) for Astyanax altiparanae and from
Manjakasy et al. (2009) for two piscivore species
from the order Beloniformes. In accordance to Rotta
(2003), the mucus produced by these cells, plays a
key role in protecting the intestinal mucosa against
the hydrochloric acid from the stomach, besides
lubricating the food bolus. Nevertheless, the
increase in quantity of these cells towards the distal
region of the intestine, does not match the
description of Takashima and Hibiya (1995) for
Oncorhynchus mykiss, which recorded higher density
of goblet cells in the proximal portion.
According to Takashima and Hibiya (1995), the
histological structure of the wall from the alimentary
tract of fish is generally similar to the other
vertebrates; the difference is in the extraordinary
morphological diversity observed in the different
fish groups, which according to Santos et al. (2007)
reflects the different positions in the food chain that
these animals occupy. This fact is partially due to the
constant changes physical, chemical and biological
that the organisms are subjected in the environment.
behavioral and
morphological characteristics are important factors
explaining the high diversity of cichlids, including
among them, anatomical changes in different
feeding mechanisms. Therefore, the fish, in general,
are adapting somehow to environmental stimulus
more convenient that can ensure better utilization
of ingested food and, consequently, higher
Acta Scientiarum. Biological Sciences
Silva et al.
performance. Thus it is justified the great variety of
feeding habits and the high morphophysiological
diversity of the digestive tract in fish.
The histological characterization of the digestive
tract of S. pappaterra, presented here, serves as
theoretical and practical bases for further studies
about trophic behavior of cichlids.
The histological characterization of the digestive
tract of S. pappaterra, presented here, serves as
theoretical and practical bases for further studies
about trophic behavior of cichlids.
The authors thank to Nupélia (Núcleo de
Pesquisas em Limnologia, Ictiologia e Aqüicultura), to
PELD Project (Pesquisas Ecológicas de Longa Duração
- site 6) and to PEA (Programa de Pós-graduação em
Ecologia de Ambientes Aquáticos Continentais) for
financial and infrastructure support.
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